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Christian Universalism is a school of Christian theology which includes the belief in the doctrine of universal reconciliation, the view that all human beings and all fallen creatures will ultimately be restored to right relationship with God in Heaven.
The term "Christian Universalism" was used in the 1820s by Russell Streeter of the Christian Intelligencer of Portland – a descendant of Adams Streeter who had founded one of the first Universalist Churches in September 14, 1785.123 Christian Universalists believe this was the most common interpretation of Christianity in Early Christianity, prior to the 6th century.4 Christians from a diversity of denominations and traditions believe in the tenets of this belief system, such as the reality of an afterlife without the possibility of eternal presence in hell.5
As a Christian denomination, Christian Universalism originates in the late 18th century with the Universalist Church of America. There is currently no single denomination uniting Christian Universalists, but a few denominations teach some of the principles of Christian Universalism or are open to them. In 2007, the Christian Universalist Association was founded to serve as an ecumenical umbrella organization for churches, ministries, and individuals who believe in Christian Universalism.
Unitarian Universalism historically grew out of Christian Universalism but is not an exclusively Christian denomination. It formed from a 1961 merger of two historically Christian denominations, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association, both based in the United States.
The two central beliefs which distinguish Christian Universalism from mainstream Christianity are universal reconciliation (all will eventually be reconciled to God without exception, the penalty for sin is not everlasting, i.e. doctrines of everlasting damnation to hell and annihilationism are rejected) and theosis (all souls will ultimately be conformed to the image of divine perfection in Christ).
The remaining central beliefs of Christian Universalism are compatible with Christianity in general:
- God is the loving Parent of all people, see Love of God.
- Jesus Christ reveals the nature and character of God and is the spiritual leader of humankind, see New Covenant.
- Humankind is created with an immortal soul which death does not end, and which God will never destroy.6
- Sin has negative consequences for the sinner either in this life or the afterlife
In 1899 the Universalist General Convention, later called the Universalist Church of America, adopted the Five Principles: the belief in God, Jesus Christ, the immortality of the human soul, the reality of sin and universal reconciliation.7 The inclusion of Theosis as a sixth point is found in the statement of faith adopted in 2007 by the Christian Universalist Association.8
The Universalist Church of America, originally called the Universalist General Convention, emerged in the late 18th century from a mixture of Anabaptists, Moravians, liberal Quakers, and people influenced by Pietist movements such as Methodism.9 Americans from these religious backgrounds gradually created a new denominational tradition of Christian Universalism during the 19th century. The Universalist Church of America grew to be the sixth largest denomination in the United States at its peak.5
John Murray, who is called the "Father of American Universalism," was a disciple of the Welshman James Relly and promoted Relly's Universalist form of Methodism in America.10 He was a central figure in the founding of the Universalist Church of America in 1793. He served as pastor of the Universalist Society of Boston and wrote many hymns.
Another important figure in early American Christian Universalism was George de Benneville, a French Huguenot preacher and physician who was imprisoned for advocating Universalism and later emigrated to Pennsylvania where he continued preaching on the subject. De Benneville was noted for his friendly and respectful relationship with Native Americans and his pluralistic and multicultural view of spiritual truth which was well ahead of his time. One of his most significant accomplishments was helping to produce the Sauer Bible, the first German language Bible printed in America. In this Bible version, passages teaching universal reconciliation were marked in boldface.11
Other significant early modern Christian Universalist leaders include Elhanan Winchester, a Baptist preacher who wrote several books promoting the universal salvation of all souls after a period in purgatory, who founded the first Universalist church in Philadelphia, and founded a church that ministered to African American slaves in South Carolina;12 Hosea Ballou, a Universalist preacher and writer in New England;13 and Hannah Whitall Smith, a writer and evangelist from a Quaker background who was active in the Holiness movement as well as the women's suffrage and temperance movements.14
A separate branch of Christian Universalism that arose in the early 20th century was the Primitive Baptist Universalists, also called "No-Hellers." They were a group of Baptists in the central and southern Appalachian Mountain region of the United States that taught universal reconciliation and, like Hosea Ballou, embraced the "Ultra-Universalist" position that there is no literal hell beyond earth.15
The Unity School of Christianity, founded in 1889 by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, has taught some Universalist beliefs such as God's total goodness, the divine nature of human beings, and the rejection of the traditional Christian belief that God condemns people to hell.16
The Universalist Church of America gradually declined in the early to mid 20th century and merged with the American Unitarian Association in 1961, creating the modern-day Unitarian Universalist Association, which does not officially subscribe to exclusively Christian theology. Christian Universalism largely passed into obscurity for the next few decades with the end of the Universalist Church as a separate denomination. However, the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship remains as an organization for Christians from the Unitarian Universalist tradition and liberal Christians interested in Unitarianism and Universalism.17
Some Christians from a Pentecostal background who were involved in the Latter Rain Movement of the 1940s and 1950s came to believe in the ideas of Christian Universalism on their own, separately from the Universalist Church tradition. They emphasized the teachings of universal reconciliation and theosis. These ideas were spread primarily through newsletters and traveling evangelists from the 1950s to 1980s, and were not typically identified by the term "Universalism." The only significant organization representing these beliefs that emerged within the Charismatic tradition was the Home Missions Church, a loosely organized network of ministers and house churches founded in 1944.
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The rise of the internet in the 1990s led to discussion and promotion of Christian Universalism through various websites. In 2005, Rick Spencer founded Restoration Nation, a ministry which holds annual conferences from across North America.18 The conversion of Bishop Carlton Pearson to a form of Universalism and his subsequent excommunication by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops in 2004 caused Christian Universalism to gain increased media attention because of Pearson's popularity and celebrity status.19 Numerous books about Christian Universalism have been written since the 1990s by authors from a diversity of denominations and religious backgrounds.15
In 2007, Eric Stetson and Kalen Fristad gathered a group of thirteen ministers and evangelists from several denominations to found the Christian Universalist Association, an interdenominational organization for churches, ministries, and individuals who believe in Christian Universalism.20
There are three general types of Christian Universalism today – Evangelical Universalism, Charismatic Universalism, and Liberal Christian Universalism – which by themselves or in combination with one another describe the vast majority of currently existing and identifiable versions of Christian Universalist belief and practice.
The type of Christian Universalism that departs the least from orthodox or traditional Christian doctrine is Evangelical (Christian) Universalism, also called Biblical or Trinitarian Universalism. Evangelical Universalists hold to conservative positions on most theological or doctrinal issues except for the doctrine of hell, in which case they assert universal reconciliation instead of eternal torment.21 They tend to emphasize the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ for the sins of all humanity as the basis for their Universalism.
In 2006 a mainstream evangelical writer, revealed22 as Robin Parry in 2009, under the pseudonym of "Gregory MacDonald" (taken from the names, Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald) released a book The Evangelical Universalist.23 In 2008 this inspired the creation of a forum,24 featuring "Gregory MacDonald" and Thomas Talbott, to discuss Evangelical Universalism and related topics. Evangelical Universalists derive a large part of their beliefs from Evangelicalism and Reformed theology. Many of them come from an Evangelical Christian background, but they may or may not identify with this movement and seek to remain with it.
Some Evangelical Universalists avoid using the word "Universalism" to describe their beliefs, perhaps because of the negative connotations of this word among conservative Christians. Alternative terms that are in use among Evangelical Universalists include the "Larger Hope" or "Blessed Hope" and the "Victorious Gospel."25
Some Christians with a background in the Charismatic movement or Pentecostalism have developed a version of Universalism which could be called Charismatic (Christian) Universalism. Charismatic Universalists usually do not call their theology "Universalism" but commonly refer to their specific beliefs by the terms "Reconciliation" (shorthand for universal reconciliation, the doctrine of apocatastasis) and "Sonship" (shorthand for "Manifest Sonship" which is a variant of the doctrine of theosis).26 The term "Feast of Tabernacles" is used by some Charismatic Universalists as a term for their post-Pentecostal spiritual tradition, reflecting a symbolic interpretation of this Jewish festival as an entrance into a fuller knowledge and relationship with God and understanding of God's plan for humanity.27
Charismatic Universalism is marked by its emphasis on theosis; the idea that the return of Christ is a body of perfected human beings who are the "Manifested Sons of God" instead of a literal return of the person of Jesus;28 the idea that these Sons will reign on the earth and transform all other human beings from sin to perfection during an age that is coming soon (a version of millennialism);29 and the absolute sovereignty of God, the nonexistence or severe limitation of human free will, and the inevitable triumph of God's plan of universal reconciliation.30 Some see similarities to the teachings of Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian who tried to modify John Calvin's teachings about predestination.
Many Charismatic Universalists meet in house churches or do not belong to a church at all. Most of the evidence of Universalism existing as a school of thought within the Charismatic movement is found in a large number of internet-based ministries that are informally networked with one another.31
Liberal Christian Universalists include some members of mainline Protestant denominations, some people influenced by the New Age and New Thought movements, some people in the emerging church movement, some Unitarian Universalists who continue to follow Jesus as their primary spiritual teacher, and some Christians from other religious backgrounds who may or may not attend church.
Liberal Christian Universalism emphasizes the all-inclusive love of God and tends to be more open to finding truth and value in non-Christian spiritual traditions compared to the attitude of other forms of Christian Universalism, while remaining generally Christ-centered.32 In contrast to Evangelical Universalism, Liberal Christian Universalism views the Bible as an imperfect human document containing divine revelations, is not necessarily Trinitarian, and often downplays or rejects blood atonement theology in its view of the crucifixion of Jesus.33 Some Liberal Christian Universalists believe in mystical philosophies such as panentheism and process theology, Gnostic or New Age ideas such as the preexistence and reincarnation of the soul,34 and New Thought ideas such as the law of attraction.35
The Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship is an organization for Liberal Christian Universalists, especially those who belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Liberal Catholic Church and the Unity Church are liberal Christian denominations which teach some Universalist beliefs.363738
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Former Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson's "Gospel of Inclusion" appears to be a hybrid between Charismatic and Liberal Christian Universalism. He is now a minister in the United Church of Christ, a liberal Christian denomination, but continues to believe in some ideas and practices of Pentecostal or Charismatic forms of Christianity. Pearson has also incorporated some New Age and New Thought teachings into his message.39 Brian McLaren is a Christian leader in the emerging church movement who is sympathetic to the idea of Universalism but does not embrace it.40
A number of ministers and evangelists connected with Restoration Nation conferences are Universalists who draw from both the Evangelical and Charismatic traditions.41 One notable example is Robert Rutherford, a minister from Georgia who was a finalist on The Learning Channel's 2006 reality TV series "The Messengers."42 Another example is Dick King, an independent Charismatic Baptist pastor in North Little Rock, Arkansas, whose church left the Southern Baptist Convention in 2004.43
The Heavenly Faith denomination, which is a Restorationist sect that blends Eastern Orthodoxy, Methodism, and Charismaticism, openly embraces Universalism, even going so far as to say that all Creation, including those individuations of it which are currently enemies of the Church, will eventually be saved. However, it maintains a traditional eschatology.44
There are many religious issues on which Christian Universalists disagree with each other, depending on their theological background and denominational tradition. Some examples include:
- A wide range of ways of understanding the Bible, such as Biblical inerrancy, Biblical infallibility, Biblical criticism and higher criticism, also various views of the Biblical canon and apocryphal texts.
- Whether God's oneness is best described by the orthodox Christian concept of Trinity or in some other way, such as classical unitarianism, Socinianism, modalism, etc.
- Whether Jesus Christ will literally return at some future time to consummate his reign on Earth (futurism and millennialism), or only returns metaphorically in the present or future, or whether these prophecies were fulfilled in ancient times and we now live during the Messianic Age (preterism).
- The specific nature of the afterlife (literal versus metaphoric heaven and hell, purgatory, reincarnation, other ideas).
- Whether the shed blood of Christ on the cross is a literal atonement for the sins of the world or whether this is metaphorical, and what the atonement accomplished – Anselm of Canterbury's satisfaction (Roman Catholic view), John Calvin's penal substitution (Reformed and common evangelical view), Hugo Grotius' moral government (classical Arminian and Methodist view), Gustaf Aulen's Christus Victor (Eastern Orthodox view, commonly held by Anabaptists), or Peter Abelard's moral influence (modernist-liberal theological view), etc.
- Whether non-Christians can be saved in Christ (inclusivism), whether salvation in Christ is even necessary for all people (pluralism), or whether salvation occurs only after profession of belief in the Lordship of Jesus Christ (exclusivism).
- Whether Christian Universalists should attend denominational churches in the hope of converting them, or should start their own new churches, or should leave the organized church entirely.46
- Catechetical School of Alexandria
- Liberal Christianity
- List of early Christian universalists
- Primitive Baptist Universalist
- Problem of Hell
- School of Antioch
- School of Nisibis and Edessa
- Divinization (Christian)
- Russell Streeter Familiar conversations: in which the salvation of all mankind is ... – Page 266 1835 "We now come to those distinguished men, MURRAY and WINCHESTER, who, as our oppo- sers would have people believe, were the inventors and first preachers of Christian Universalism."
- not Russell Streeter. The Christian repository: Volume 9 – Page 218 Church of the United Brethren in Christ (1800–1889) – 1829 "In a piece entitled Christian Universalism, in the Christian Intelligencer, volume 3d, page 4, he wrote the following: "The Editor," speaking of himself, "deems it a solemn obligation to protest against proceedings calculated to make an"
- The journal of Unitarian Universalist history: Volumes 26–28 Unitarian Universalist Historical Society – 1999 "The adoption of the name Christian Universalist can, nevertheless, be explained plausibly in the context of Dean's debate with Aesop. "
- Vincent, Ken R. (July/August 2006). "The Salvation Conspiracy: How Hell Became Eternal". The Universalist Herald. See also: J.W. Hanson. Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First 500 Years. Boston and Chicago: Universalist Publishing House, 1899. Archive: Prevailing Tentmaker.org.
- Vincent, Ken R. (January/February 2006). "Where Have All the Universalists Gone?". The Universalist Herald.
- The Bible Hell. TentMaker.org. "The immortal soul is not meant, but the life. As though Jesus had said: "Fear Not those who can only kill the body, but rather him, who if he chose could destroy the soul"
- "See section entitled "Five Principles of Faith"". Auburn.edu. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "The Christian Universalist Association > About Us / FAQ". Christianuniversalist.org. 2007-05-17. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "The Christian Universalist Association > History of Universalism". Christianuniversalist.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "James Reilly". UUA.org, "History: Early Modern". ChristianUniversalist.org.
- "George de Benneville". 5-temp.uua.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "Elehan Winchester". UUA.org, "Biographies: Elehan Winchester". TentMaker.org.
- "Hosea Ballou". 5-temp.uua.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "Hannah Whitall Smith". Tentmaker.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "The Christian Universalist Association > History of Universalism". Christianuniversalist.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "Frequently Asked Questions about Unity". Unityonline.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "Who Are The UU Christians?". Uuchristian.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- Restoration Nation. ImRestored.com.dead link
- "'Inclusionism' deemed heresy". Washington Times (WashTimes.com). 2004-04-20. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "The Christian Universalist Association > Special Events > Founding Board Meeting". ChristianUniversalist.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "Evangelical Universalism – Oxymoron". JasonClark.ws. February 25, 2008.
- Parry, Robin (2009-08-29). "Theological Scribbles: I am the Evangelical Universalist". Theologicalscribbles.blogspot.com. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- MacDonald, Gregory (a pseudonym). The Evangelical Universalist. 2006. ISBN 1-59752-365-8
- "Forum". Evangelicaluniversalist.com. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- Amirault, Gary. "Tentmaker Ministries battles for the Victorious Gospel of Jesus Christ". Tentmaker.org. Tentmaker Ministries. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "From The Candlestick to the Throne, Part 33, The Church in Ephesus" (section "I Will Remove Your Candlestick"). Author refers to "the teaching or doctrine of reconciliation, sonship and the kingdom".
- "Chapter 7 The Feast of Tabernacles". gods-kingdom-ministries.org, and "Coming into Light prt 1". ToSeekTheLight blog.
- See "ID69" and "ID349". HearingtheTruthofGod.com.
- "ID269" HearingtheTruthofGod.com.
- "Free Moral Agent-Eby", Tentmaker.org, and "ID116". HearingTheTruthOfGod.com].
- "is one of the largest collections of links to Charismatic Universalist websites, ministries, house churches and groups". Sigler.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- Non-Christian. SaviorOfTheWOrld.net. Example of this view.
- See "Deity of Christ", "(section "Christian Universalism 'Endorsed' by Jesus Seminar", and "Metaphysical Bible", NewBeginningMinistries.com.
- See Oneness True Spiritual Life", "Conclusion" and "Reincarnation". SavioroftheWorld.com.
- See "Pastor compares church". SPTimes.com, July 14, 2007. and "You are not your DNS". Newbeginningsministryies.com.
- "See especially the section entitled "The Liberal Catholic Act of Faith"". Members.tripod.com. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "Unity". Bible.ca
- "Who we are: Teachings". UnityOnline.org.
- "New Thought Ministries of Oregon – NTMO.org Homepage". Ntmo.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- See "Brian's rejection that he is a Universalist". See "Mark Driscoll criticizes fellow Evangelical Brian McLaren for his "denial of hell" and other liberal theological ideas." See also "McLaren discusses his struggle" with the doctrine of eternal hell and his unwillingness to embrace and preach it. Beliefnet.com.
- "Videos of many conference speakers". Restoration-nation.tv.
- See "Meet the Messengers". Discovery.com, and Robert Rutherford blog.
- "Our Journey". Indian Hills Church.
- Heavenly Faith
- "The Christian Universalist Association > A Unique Spiritual Movement". ChristianUniversalist.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "Should we Form Universalist" and "FAQ: Organization" offer two very different views on this subject.
- Bressler, Ann Lee. The Universalist Movement in America, 1770–1880. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Ezekiel Stone Wiggins Universalism unfounded being a complete analysis and refutation of the system Published 1867 in Nepean, Ontario Universalism unfounded
- Christian Universalism at DMOZ
- Tentmaker Ministries – A large website full of articles, online books, and other resources promoting Christian Universalism.
- Christianity as the Universal Religion, Chapter Eight in Stephen Palmquist, Kant's Critical Religion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000) – Demonstrates that the 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, regarded the Christian religion as the only "natural religion" that has the potential to be spread to all human beings.
- Evangelical Universalism – A website with articles, books, and other materials promoting the biblical doctrine of Evangelical Universalism.
- Universalism and the Bible – Keith DeRose, Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, defends universalism on biblical grounds.
- A Case for Christian Universalism – A website devoted to supporting Christian Universalism biblically.
- The Christian Universalist Association – All God's Children, No One Left Behind
- Evangelical Universalist – Evangelical Universalism Discussion Forum
- The Catholic Universalist Church – Apostolic, Sacramental Universalist Church
- "Universalists". The American Cyclopædia. 1879.